Sketch October 2012

Pipe Dreamer

Could Gary Johnson’s turn as a pro-legalization Libertarian swing the presidential election?

Just about every third-party candidate peddles a version of the same basic spiel about the need for alternatives to a numbingly homogenous two-party political culture. So does Johnson. But his quest also contains an unmistakable element of because-it’s-there thrill-seeking. (The man once climbed Mount Everest with a leg still broken from skiing.) “Life needs to be an adventure,” he told me. And: “I’m doing this for myself.” His pre-campaign life is pleasant enough to go back to—he has a fiancée, whom he met a few years ago on a bike ride; various business ventures (though a recent attempt to bring plasma-­torch trash disposal to the United States failed); and a home, a tin-roofed house on 25 wooded acres near Taos, which he and a crew of friends built after a Hawaiian para­gliding accident temporarily took him off the extreme-sports circuit. (Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is a neighbor. “He invited me over for dinner, but I had about 15 people coming over to my house, so I had to decline,” Johnson told me. He hopes they can reschedule; he’d like to talk to Rumsfeld about downsizing the military.)

Third-party candidates also like to say, however implausibly, that they are running to win. Here again, Johnson plays to type. He says his candidacy hangs on getting into the October presidential debates. To qualify, a candidate must hit 15 percent in five national polls, a number Johnson claims is in reach. (Most major polls have not included Johnson in their surveys, but one national poll taken in July gave him about 5 percent of the vote.) Even if he meets this requirement, however, he worries that the Commission on Presidential Debates, which is controlled by the two major parties, might do to him what the various networks hosting primary debates did last year. When he met the polling prerequisites, he says, some networks suddenly said the benchmarks had changed, but failed to announce new ones; others simply wouldn’t return his campaign’s calls.

At 59, Johnson is still young by presidential standards, and he doesn’t rule out running again in four years if this campaign doesn’t take him to the White House. For now, more plausible than a win is a scenario in which he acts as a spoiler. Polls over the summer showed Johnson doing particularly well in libertarian-­friendly swing states such as Colorado (7 percent), Arizona (9 percent), and New Mexico (13 percent). Third-party candidates tend to fare better in polls than they do on Election Day, but if Johnson can win even a sliver of these votes, it could be enough to tip the outcome.

Johnson dismisses such talk. He points to polling that has him siphoning roughly equal numbers of votes from Obama and Romney. He also maintains that it is a myth that Ralph Nader spoiled 2000 for Al Gore and Ross Perot spoiled 1992 for George H. W. Bush. “That’s just been so accepted, but it’s not true,” Johnson said. “Perot took from both sides, and then he took from a group in the middle that wouldn’t have ordinarily voted.”

In any case, if Johnson did earn enough votes that the loser singled him out for blame, he would be fine with that. “I’m not going to play a spoiler role, but if I get labeled as playing a spoiler role, that would be terrific also,” he said, a smirk lighting up his bright-blue eyes. “That would direct a lot of attention.”

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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